“Better For Us To Be Separated”

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Garrison had himself been a supporter of colonization—had even spoken for it publicly in 1829. But he was struck by the racial bias that lay at the root of the colonization idea. It was entirely at odds with Christianity, he thought; and it was most certainly at odds with the American political philosophy that “all men are created equal.” He prepared a long essay, Thoughts on African Colonization , which he published in 1832. Taking as his keynote the phrase “out of thine own mouth will I condemn thee,” he built his attack around quotations from the colonizationists. For instance, the president of Union College, the Reverend Eliphalet Nott, was one who spoke of free blacks in terms Garrison found offensive: “ We have endeavored [he quoted Nott], but endeavored in vain, to restore them either to self respect, or to the respect of others .” It is painful to contradict so worthy an individual; but nothing is more certain than that this statement is altogether erroneous. We have derided, we have shunned, we have neglected them, in every possible manner. … Again: “ It is not our fault that we have failed . …” We are wholly and exclusively in fault. What have we done to raise them up from the earth? What have we not done to keep them down? Once more: “ It has resulted from a cause over which neither they, nor we, can ever have control .” In other words, they have been made with skins “ not colored like our own, ” and therefore we cannot recognize them as fellow-countrymen, or treat them like rational beings! One sixth of our whole population must, FOR EVER , in this land, remain a wretched, ignorant, and degraded race,—and yet nobody be culpable— none but the Creator who has made us incapable of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us! Horrible—horrible! If this be not an impeachment of Infinite Goodness,—I do not say intentionally but really ,—I cannot define it.

That was the crux of the matter, the essential contradiction that defeated large-scale resettlement. Prejudice, Garrison pointed out, ought not to be countenanced in a country founded on an assurance of the inherent nobility of every man. To be true to itself the nation should be putting on armor and battling against racial bias. Furthermore, by grounding their appeal in a view of blacks that was derogatory—however gentle and sympathetic it might sometimes be—the colonizationists bore a heavy responsibility for keeping free Negroes in a depressed condition. As for the society’s effect on slavery, it actually retarded the freeing of slaves, Garrison believed, since it concentrated on the slow process of voluntary emancipation and voluntary colonization—which showed no honest promise of success anyway. As Negro abolitionist James Porten had put it in 1817, “Let not a purpose be assisted which will stay the cause of the entire abolition of slavery.”

The direct assault of Garrison’s Thoughts proved disastrous to the society; for while Garrison was perhaps in a tiny minority, his views carried weight with the very humanitarians who might otherwise have unswervingly supported a high-minded organization like the society. But in addition, the society’s most important opposition came from free Negroes themselves. The colonizationists operated on the assumption that of course Negroes would want to go “home” to Africa. But most did not. Black resistance to the colonization idea was evident as soon as the society was founded. A Philadelphia meeting in January, 1817, resolved: “Our ancestors were, though not from choice, the first cultivators of the wilds of America, and we, their descendants, claim a right to share in the blessings of her luxuriant soil which their blood and sweat manured. We read with deep abhorrence the unmerited stigma, attempted to be cast on the reputation of the free people of color. … We declare that we will never be separated from the slave population of this country. …”

Outright deportation of unwilling Negroes would not have been at all in keeping with the society’s spirit of philanthropy; it would have represented too great a departure from its concept of Christian charity. Nonetheless, with the shadow of slavery behind it, the “offer” of deportation to the blacks had something of a threat about it. In any event, many of the manumitted slaves who were sent to Liberia were freed only on condition that they exile themselves there. Rarely did large numbers of free Negroes volunteer to go, and then only in times of extreme distress, as during the uproar that followed Nat Turner’s rebellion, when their situation was especially uncomfortable. The repression of free Negroes by law was aimed in part at “encouraging” their emigration.